Where no Travel Writer has Gone Before

Travel Stories: In a five-part series, Rolf Potts joins Trekkies aboard a "Star Trek" theme cruise to Bermuda

By Doug Mack

Were I to write a science fiction movie, it would be about a spaceship full of aliens who like to eat humans. As their intergalactic spaceship circles Earth, the aliens ponder how they might discreetly harvest humans for their cosmic smorgasbord. They’ve determined that humans don’t taste as good when they’re pasty and stringy and stressed-out, so they start researching ways to create a device that tricks people into becoming tanned, plump and docile. After several months of trial and error, the aliens unveil a foolproof trap—a giant, box-like contraption that separates Homo sapiens from their home-habitat and subjects them to an entire week of inactivity, constant eating and sun exposure. This ingenious device, the aliens announce triumphantly, is to be called the “cruise ship.”

MORE: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Video

As I enter my final day aboard the Norwegian Dawn, I can sense a change of mood among the rank-and-file passengers. Bloated and blissful after six days of cruising, everyone seems at a loss for what to do now that Bermuda has receded into the distance. The ship still provides a massive array of activities, but even amidst the shopping and the stage shows (“Flashback to the ‘60s with Jose and Patti!”) I detect an edge of anxiousness that can arise when leisure-overload bumps up against the creeping realization that workaday life is about to resume. A week of isolation from reliable Internet and cellphone services has left people with nothing new to talk about, so the default social activity among passengers seems to be a running commentary on everything that’s happening on board. Given the public-yet-enclosed nature of the ship, this has made for great eavesdropping.

Now that word has gotten out that there are Trekkies onboard, an increasingly popular conversation topic among non-Cruise Trek passengers is “Star Trek.” This at times proves confusing. While I’m eating my lunch by the swimming pool on Deck 12, for instance, I hear two men in the hot tub arguing about why Klingons in the original series look different from the Klingons in later incarnations of “Star Trek.” The guys look to be in their mid-40s, and they occasionally pause to yell over at their children, who are splashing around in the pool. I don’t recognize them, so I walk over, introduce myself, and ask them if they’re with the “Star Trek” contingent. The instant they realize I’ve taken them for Trekkies, their eyes go blank with a look of hard-wired adolescent terror. They eventually regain their composure and explain that they’re just taking a regular cruise-vacation with their families—but for a brief moment the awkwardness is palpable: I feel as if I’ve just walked into a junior high locker room and asked a couple of boys if they’d like to kiss each other. 

Indeed, showcasing one’s “Star Trek” fandom can at times be a delicate endeavor. Despite the overwhelming sense of affection the show garners from most all corners of American society, nobody (not even the Cruise Trekkers I’ve met) wants their affection to be taken the wrong way. It’s as if there’s an archetypal über-fan out there—a snuffling, virginal 47-year-old who spends his waking moments building balsa-wood models of Starfleet battle-cruisers in his mother’s basement—and nobody wants to be mistaken for him.

If anything, however, my time on the Norwegian Dawn has confirmed that a visible “Trek”-fan archetype doesn’t really exist. Since my fellow Cruise Trekkers rarely wear their “Star Trek” costumes for general cruise events, they’ve managed to blend seamlessly with the other passengers. Last night I attended a karaoke contest at Dazzles Lounge, and a young couple sitting next to me spent the entire night singling out “Trekkies.” Apparently the wife’s criteria encompassed anyone who was overweight, poorly groomed or given to singing off-key (I didn’t have the heart to tell her that all the Cruise Trekkers were off attending a group dinner in the Venetian restaurant at the time). Moreover, some of the most spontaneous expressions of “Star Trek” fandom haven’t even come from the self-identified Trekkies. I spent my second day on Bermuda in the company of “Trek”-actor Vaughn Armstrong, and the only true moment of stalker-style hysteria came during a visit to the St. George wharf, when a random group of teenage Norwegian Dawn passengers shriekingly identified him as “Admiral Forrest from ‘Enterprise’” and demanded he pose for photographs.

On a few occasions, cruise passengers have noticed me taking notes at Cruise Trek events and asked me what it’s like to spend a week in the company of Trekkies. I tell them that Trekkies are pretty much like anyone else, they just happen to be fixated on a certain science-fiction show.

This seems a reasonable enough answer, but as the final day of the cruise progresses, I come to discover that it isn’t entirely accurate. 

Photo by Rolf Potts

For travelers and journalists alike, a central strategy in encountering other cultures is to get out and meet people. The odd catch to this endeavor is that, as a traveler or a journalist, you tend to meet the same kind of people over and over again. In countries where you don’t speak the language, you invariably end up hanging out with local English speakers; in esoteric subcultures like Cruise Trek, it’s natural to gravitate toward the extroverts. And in doing so, it’s easy to miss out on the introverted perspective of people who don’t feel always comfortable in social situations.

I learn this quite tellingly after lunch, when I stand up at a Cruise Trek trivia event and announce that I’d love to interview anyone who feels they’d like to share something about how “Star Trek” has affected their lives. The response is unexpectedly overwhelming: I spend the rest of the afternoon meeting unfamiliar Cruise Trekkers—people I’ve seen here and there, but didn’t really notice. Most of them confess that they would have been too shy to approach me had I not offered the pretext of a formal interview (as well as a reassurance that I was not there to make fun of them).

In the process of speaking with this new group of Trekkies, I hear a common refrain: “If I seem normal to you, it’s because ‘Star Trek’ has helped me feel normal.” The sentiment comes in a number of variations:

“When I was a teenager I was a bit of a social outcast and I really identified with ‘Star Trek’ and its inclusion for others. I always liked Data from ‘The Next Generation’ because as an android he didn’t fully grasp the human condition. Since I’m autistic I don’t have as many social skills, and sometimes I struggle with the same issues as Data. It’s encouraging to know that such an intelligent and well-liked character also has problems understanding social situations.”

“Growing up black and female in the 1960s, it meant so much to turn on the TV and see a woman like Uhura portrayed with intelligence and strength, working as an equal alongside white men and an Asian and a man of mixed race. ‘Star Trek’ showed me that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you look like: You’re valuable just the way you are, and anything is possible if you find your talents and work hard.” 

“You have two families in life, the one you’re born into and the one you choose. ‘Star Trek’ is the family I’ve chosen. It’s not just a show about gadgets and space battles; it’s about the camaraderie of the people on the spaceship. Coming from a dysfunctional background, it was important for me to see that kind of goodness and caring between people. At some point I just decided I wasn’t going to live like the people I grew up with; I was going to live my life like the people on the U.S.S. Enterprise.”

As I listen to one person after another talk about how “Star Trek” has helped them make sense of life, I recall a passage from “Understanding Other Cultures,” an old 1960s anthropology primer I discovered on my father’s bookshelf when I was a kid. “The most profitable way to look at a culture is to see it as an adaptive mechanism,” the introductory chapter read. “In this sense a culture is a body of ready-made solutions…a cushion between man and his environment. ...It is our culture that enables us to get through the day because both we and the other people we encounter attach somewhat the same meanings to the same things.” 

I begin to see that, for all of my glib, quasi-ethnological pronouncements about experiencing Cruise Trek as an outsider, “Star Trek” fandom truly is a human culture in the purest sense of the word. I feel privileged to have experienced it for a few days.

The final event of Cruise Trek is a sci-fi themed pajama party, which takes place in the Deck 12 conference room. Everyone shows up dressed in nightgowns, Starfleet uniforms or some combination thereof. One married couple shows up in nightshirts, slippers and full Vulcan and Klingon makeup. After a few final trivia contests, everyone ends up huddled around folding tables, engrossed in a sprawling, collective game of Uno. Some people clutch teddy bears as they play their cards; others hold beers or cocktails. One couple cuddles in the back of the room, half-awake under a blanket patterned with Starfleet logos. 

Scanning the tables, taking note of everyone who’s told me their story, I’m impressed by the diversity of the group that has assembled here: not just male and female, urban and rural, black and white, but conservative and liberal, gay and straight, introvert and extrovert, religious and atheist, healthy and handicapped. Office workers rub shoulders with retired soldiers, shoe salesmen with physicians, businessmen with the unemployed. The charm isn’t that these people share a love of “Star Trek,” but that—apart from “Trek”—they don’t necessarily have all that much in common. It’s a weird little travel moment; all of us playing cards in our pajamas and chatting informally with the same kind of people we might ignore back home. 

We end up playing well after midnight. Nobody keeps score.



Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


26 Comments for Where no Travel Writer has Gone Before

Megan Hill 11.16.09 | 1:18 PM ET

This is amazing. I can’t wait to read tomorrow’s piece!

Alison 11.16.09 | 1:18 PM ET

Loved this piece, very well-written!

Trisha Miller 11.16.09 | 1:50 PM ET

Well-written piece, as I expected it would be, but I’m a little surprised to learn that Rolf didn’t dig into some pre-cruise research by watching hours and hours of old Star Trek episodes, in order to understand the Trekkies culture and language, the way he would before any other trip. :)  But no matter, I’ll still enjoy his series, and I’m still envious of him and this assignment!

Lindsey 11.16.09 | 4:14 PM ET

Rolf,
You are a brave man, for voluntarily being captive on a floating ship like that!

Makye Ame 11.16.09 | 10:51 PM ET

Where’s the travel?  I mean there is so much good writing out there that goes unpublished and then to have a piece like this that is nothing special and doesn’t involve any real journey or exploration.

Is this series of articles supposed to be some cheap David Foster Wallace knockoff?

I really disliked the piece and am starting to feel that Worldhum has fallen into the comfortable groove of publishing mediocre work by writers they’ve already published before.

Makye Ame 11.16.09 | 10:57 PM ET

I just realized that this is going to be a five part series.

Mix it up a bit for heaven’s sake!

Epiphanie 11.17.09 | 1:05 AM ET

Dear Rolf,

What a brilliant idea! I think fan culture is a phenomenon worth exploring from a lot of angles, and I love your self-reflexive style, as always. Keep up the fab work! :o)

Marcy Gordon 11.17.09 | 3:13 AM ET

Ha! I wonder if the travel agent that recently booked a straight Italian couple on an all gay cruise had a weakness for counterintuitive travel strategies? I’d be suspicious of Rolf too if I was a Trekkie and found out he was writing about my theme cruise from a non-Trekkie perspective. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see how the story unfolds.

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 11.17.09 | 11:04 AM ET

Interesting post about Trekkies at sea.  Who knew there was a Star Trek themed cruise.  It definitely is not the “normal” travel writing that we’re used to reading.  Kind of refreshing…

Aaron H 11.17.09 | 12:37 PM ET

I can’t think of two thinks I care about less than cruises and Star Trek, but this is a great article—funny and full of insight.

Lindsay 11.17.09 | 3:11 PM ET

I laughed so much while reading this. Love it!!! Great piece.

Mike Costantino 11.17.09 | 5:32 PM ET

What with all the interviews and “observations” I hope Rolf found some time to really enjoy himself. It’s gotta be tough spend all your energy channeling Lévi-Strauss.

Matt Stabile 11.18.09 | 10:52 AM ET

Nice work Rolf, really enjoying the piece. It’s always great to read travel pieces from a different angle.

@Makye Ame : I think you’re missing the point. To say that this piece “doesn’t involve any real journey or exploration” is quite narrow-minded. As most travelers know, it’s not the destination but the journey. What better way to look back on a lifetime of travel and exploration than to view it through the prism of a mundane, prosaic cruise? Yes, David Foster Wallace did this in his own way, and Rolf is doing it his.

Sure there are plenty of articles and ideas out there about the next off-the-beaten-path destination, but the danger is losing the thrill of enjoying those places and cultures. Perhaps a cruise is needed every once in a while to remind us all of that.

http://www.TheExpeditioner.com

Grizzly Bear Mom 11.18.09 | 1:27 PM ET

I loved the Wayne and Rita part of the story.  Aren’t people fascinating? 

But confess, Rolf.  Considering the adventure in your travel stories I find it difficult to believe that you volunteered to go on a cruise.  Aren’t you really serving time for some offense?

travel agents indonesia 11.20.09 | 2:17 PM ET

nice share and website..thanks for the tips.I loved to the Wayne and Rita part of the story


http://travel-tour-indonesia.com

Ben 11.20.09 | 11:51 PM ET

Rolf,

Thanks for showing, yet again, that a good travel writer is every bit as savvy as an academc anthropologist—but more entertaining and often more honest.

Well done.

Eric Stillwell 11.23.09 | 1:13 PM ET

Rolf—

This is a fantastic series of articles. My wfie and I have been on nine Cruise Treks over the years—including the original Bermuda Cruise Trek many moons ago—and you really captured the heart and spirt of this wonderful group of people. Unfortunately we weren’t on board for this Bermuda cruise, but we did go on the Blue Danube Cruise Trek in 2008 and are booked for the Mediterranean Gateway Cruise Trek in 2010. I encourage those who are interested—or even just curious—to check out the Cruise Trek fan page on Facebook!

Aly 11.23.09 | 11:27 PM ET

This was a great piece (series). Very upbeat, humorous, but I must say I was most moved by the last part.  You really did Trek fans right by including the testimonials by the fans who were not the ‘extroverts.’  I am a very extroverted life of the party kind of person now; as a jr. higher and teenager though I was just as much an outcast within my family and school as any kid could be.  Star Trek helped me hold onto my values and beliefs, and not compromise myself and who I was in some effort to ‘fit in.’  I am quite ‘normal’ now socially, and I have Star Trek to thank for it.  And I would not be embarrased in the slightest to wear my uniform at any situation.

James L. Moore 11.24.09 | 2:33 PM ET

This is an excellent piece of writing and a great idea for exploration.

There are so many communities ‘out there’ and I have always thought there should be a book just about these odd, random, eclectic communities of people—- RV parks in Arizona, Philadelphia Eagles fans tailgating before a game, WoW guilds online, bikers gathering in Sturgis, etc. etc.

All of these sub-subcultures throughout America.

Write on.

Melanie Sargent 11.25.09 | 12:34 AM ET

What a fun, interesting read!  I never dreamed that I should explore the sci-fi arena before as it has never really compelled me.  However, after reading this, I’m thinking that the underlying theme is all about the “what if’s” of life, and that’s what I’m interested in.  I liked the cultural tie-in’s as well.  Like attracts like, and we tend to “like” people when we are “like” people, sometimes it just takes a cruise ship to get in touch with the commonalities. 

And, speaking of cruise ships, I have off and on been contemplating taking a cruise (I like the idea of getting a taste of different places and then coming back later to the ones I liked the best), but they sound too much like Vegas, and I’m not crazy about Vegas…!  So, you helped convince me that it wouldn’t be a good fit for my personality. 

Thanks for sharing a great bit of information and humor with us!

Panama Hotel 12.03.09 | 10:45 AM ET

Love the piece. When I initially saw the title,  it touched, in a thematic sort of way, on a bigger theme in travel which is our need/want to go places that are ‘undiscovered’ or ‘unknown.’ For those who haven’t read it, a specialist named Stanley Plog did a report for Cornell Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly in which he defines certain destinations as well as the people who like to go there into varying categories of “adventure.” Our boutique hotel (http://www.loscuatrotulipanes.com) here in Panama is located in Casco Viejo - a slightly offbeat colonial city with quirks and downfalls. It’s gorgeous and culturally rich, but not for everybody. The people it attracts are venturers - and not the type you’d see in Cancun. Inevitably, the unknown destinations become known, and the undiscovered spots get discovered. According to Plog,  if you’re aware of the factors at play, you can manipulate a destination on this curve.

kha 12.08.09 | 2:19 AM ET

who paid for this piece—the writer or the cruise or pr company?

Michael Yessis 12.08.09 | 7:04 PM ET

Hi kha. World Hum paid the writer for this piece.

Wendy 12.18.09 | 2:34 AM ET

We need to find the new island.

Wendy 12.28.09 | 10:45 PM ET

Thanks for sharing a great bit of information and humor with us!

Onelia Herriot 12.31.09 | 9:22 PM ET

I loved this piece. I am just an ordinary Joe (or should I say Jane) I went on Cruise Trek 2007 New Zealand. I am also Australian but Star Trek is a multicultural environment so I didnt feel left out.

2007 was my first experience of Cruise Trek although I had heard of this group for many years. I was traveling solo and was amazed at how easily and quickly I was embraced by my fellow CT cruisers. Everyone made an effort to welcome the new comers and then it is up to the new comers whether they wish to mix or just have a cruise. I must admit knowing that knowing there is 100 other people on a ship of 2000 that I had something in common with was comforting.

I am far from the “hard core” trekkie that many would think would join this crowd, for example in the trivia contest I only could answer 1 out of 50 questions and that was an extremely easy one, so you dont need to be a uniform wearing card carrying trekkie to enjoy the activities. And from my perspective its not about the “stars” so much as the feeling of family among my other companions that was the best part, although I will admit that having breakfast and having a star of your favourite show ask if they can share your table was pretty cool as well. (and one which I think most people the world over would love to have occur)

I enjoyed the experience so much that i am attending the 2010 Mediterranean Gateway cruise.

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